Whole Brain Thinking is a great tool which you can use when:

  • preparing a community engagement plan
  • writing a strategy, plan or report
  • planning a meeting
  • making a presentation
  • figuring out why you’re annoyed with someone!

Whole Brain Thinking was developed by Ned Herrmann. It is based on the idea that we have natural aptitudes for different kinds of work, and it provides a simple and practical way to identify how we can work better, appreciate our colleagues more, and improve our written and verbal communication.

The simplicity of this framework makes it easy for us to self-diagnose our strengths and to make a reasonable guess about our colleagues’ strengths.

Mental strengths of Whole Brain Thinking

Here are the four mental strengths of Whole Brain Thinking. Most people will favour one of these ways of thinking, or a mix of two or three of them. It is quite rare to be equally at home with all four of the following mental strengths.

  • A/Blue — research, building on lessons from the past, great with facts and figures
  • B/Green — great with detail, suited to project management and practicality, focused on implementation
  • C/Red — focused on emotion, geared towards seeking consensus, and great with relationship management and resolving interpersonal conflicts
  • D/Yellow — future trends and innovation, great with design and aesthetic considerations.

Real life examples of Whole Brain Thinking

The system isn’t hard to apply. When I assess myself, I’m strongly geared towards the green quadrant, which means I am happy as a clam chomping through the detail involved in researching, drafting, structuring and editing documents for councils … which would drive someone of the red or yellow persuasions a little crazy.

I have a friend who is firmly in the yellow and red quadrants. She is in yellow heaven when she is leading workshops with organisations related to their vision statement. She is also completely in her red home when she is sorting out the interpersonal conflicts within an organisation. However, sending out an invoice causes her personal pain and she stuffs all her tax receipts for the year in a shoe box. This means green is her least favoured part of the quadrant.

Work with your strengths to be successful at work

As mentioned earlier, not many people are equally at home with all four of the mental strengths. The authors of ‘The Whole Brain Business Book’ (Ned Herrmann and Ann Hermann-Nehdi) state that of the thousands of assessments they have done with organisations, only 4% of people have equal access to all four mental strengths. If you are one of these people, you will be well-suited to being a chief executive, because this role requires a strong blend of all of these skills.

For the rest of us mere mortals, we’re better off figuring out which jobs or business services are the best fit for our natural strengths. That’s because “the greater the percentage of this kind of work there is in your job, the more interest and passion you will have for doing the work, and therefore the better your performance will be.” (page 146, ‘The Whole Brain Business Book’).

Whole Brain Thinking within councils

Councils are complex ecosystems, with niches to suit all four thinking strengths. Here are some examples of where you might find the different thinking types in action.

A/Blue strengths — these people have the singular focus required to dive deep into data, so may thrive as environmental scientists or asset analysts. Just don’t throw them under a stakeholder engagement bus!

B/Green strengths — these people are a natural at managing multiple projects while delivering to tight deadlines, whether that relates to infrastructure projects or resource consents. From personal experience, I know that a focus on consistent delivery in a timely way may mean these people see it as a bit of a luxury to spend a lot of extra time gathering yet more monitoring data, or holding endless stakeholder meetings about visions and values, before reaching a pragmatic decision.

C/Red strengths — these people have a strong instinct for ‘reading the room’ and welcoming other people into discussions.  They know how a decision is reached is as important as the outcome. Community engagement, interactions with politicians, and customer-facing roles within councils are a natural fit for these staff members, but they may recoil if asked to put together a detailed business case with financial estimates.

D/Yellow strengths — these people have an eye on the big picture and on future trends. They are ideal for any role where councils need to establish new ways of working — but once that direction has been agreed on, they are likely to be happier if they can hand over project delivery to someone else and move on to a new challenge or question.

Combinations of Whole Brain Thinking strengths

Executive assistants who are superb at their job may be a mix of green and red (B and C). Policy planners who ensure their policies turn into action on the ground are likely to have a strong mix of blue and green strengths (A and B).

How different people approach the same issue

Here’s a quick example of the likely preoccupations of each thinking type during an inner-city revamp which involves the introduction of new street furniture.

A (analyst) cares about the trend in foot traffic statistics over time, and therefore where the furniture should be placed.

B (project manager) cares about getting the seats sourced from the manufacturer, and in the ground.

C (stakeholder engagement specialist) cares about who was consulted before selecting those benches and whether their dimensions are a good fit for all ages and physical abilities.

D (innovator) cares about the aesthetics — what the colour and the shape of the benches tells residents and visitors about your city centre.

Being aware of these different ways of approaching the same issue can make for happier teams, where members appreciate each others’ strengths and work together to arrive at more complete solutions.

Of course, different thinking types can also grate on each others’ nerves. The authors of the Whole Brain Business Book (on page 180) note that homogenous teams (made up of people with similar strengths) will more quickly solve simple problems. However, where there is a complex challenge to be addressed, organisations which bring together heterogeneous teams (with the full range of mental strengths) will arrive at more comprehensive, creative and innovative solutions, and come up with several alternative solutions.

Communicating with your audience

So we know taking a whole brain approach can help with solving complex problems and appreciating our colleagues. But what about writing and other forms of communication? It helps here too.

There are many different audiences for your work (including your senior leadership team, councillors and the public) who will all have their own mix of thinking preferences. That’s why your communications (whether they are in the form of reports, strategies, plans or presentations) need to appeal to all aspects of the quadrant. ‘The Whole Brain Business Book’ authors recommend doing a ‘walk around’ when reviewing any document, to ensure it communicates on all these levels:

  • C/Red (story – why it matters and to who)
  • D/Yellow (future trends, innovative options)
  • B/Green (structure, work programme)
  • A/Blue (data, financial projections)

You can also use this framework to consider the likely questions and focus of different members of your audience. And if you are having a one-to-one meeting with a stakeholder who you know well enough to identify their thinking strengths, you can tailor the delivery of your information to focus on what matters most to them. (See ‘what different people want to hear from you’ in the image below.)

If you have downloaded my community engagement template, you can reflect this in your stakeholder analysis table, in the column which lists ‘what the stakeholder wants from us’.

What different people want to hear from you

Click on this link if you would like to download and print the image above.

If you would like to dive a bit deeper into Whole Brain Thinking, here’s my other article on this topic – How to use Whole Brain Thinking to understand yourself and others.